Saturday was, one could argue, “Reality Saturday” in the SEC.
Kentucky ran into the same big brick wall of truth — the Georgia Bulldogs — that the Florida Gators encountered the previous weekend.
Florida might have felt that its problems from the Kentucky game early in the season did not have to be reconsidered — not after ripping off several wins in a row and making the Georgia game a significant opportunity for the team. Losing to Georgia could have been brushed off: “It’s Georgia. Those guys are really good. We will straighten things out against Missouri. Don’t you worry.”
It wasn’t that easy. To be much more precise, it wasn’t even achieved at all.
There was no matter-of-fact restoration of order. There was no calm and smooth return to the winning ways of previous weeks. There was no expected rebound, a natural act of regrouping and putting the season back on track.
No. None of it happened… and the Gators were never particularly close to making it happen.
Missouri walked into The Swamp and drained it — of energy, of good football from the home team, and of hopes for a particularly good January bowl game (Citrus, ideally). The Tigers could have sulked in Gainesville after letting Kentucky off the hook the week before and improbably losing yet another SEC game by a microscopic margin. Missouri let South Carolina slip away earlier in October and ended the month with that crushing late-stage collapse against Big Blue. Missouri had its own tough loss to cope with entering Week 10.
The Tigers played like the team that had everything to gain. The Gators played like a team which doubted itself… and like the team it really is in 2018. The Gators ran smack into an inconvenient truth on Reality Saturday: The margins never were particularly large with this group. This loss is disappointing, but it comes with a measure of clarity in that it shows that this team was not a championship-caliber outfit. The Georgia game might have been the main indicator, but Missouri has now confirmed as much.
We mentioned Kentucky above. Also consider Virginia, which lost to Pittsburgh Friday night and had its dreams of a big bowl game turn into rubble. Some teams were able to get by through October with modest offenses, quality defenses, and an ability to minimize huge mistakes. “Success by avoidance” was the simple mantra — just avoid making large numbers of huge mistakes and rely on opponents to implode or struggle.
Florida’s modus operandi wasn’t too far removed from that template over the past two months. The Mississippi State and LSU games — which distinctly changed the tenor of the season for the better — were both examples of that principle. It was consistent with old-time football from previous decades before spread passing attacks became the norm: field position; kicking game; don’t beat yourself. Florida was able to do that… but the Gators saw against Georgia what it felt like to be outgunned, and to go up against a quarterback and an offense which could perform at a reasonable baseline level of competence.
The expectation for Florida against Missouri was that after Kentucky smothered UM’s offense throughout the second half of its comeback 15-14 win over the Tigers in Week 9, Florida’s defensive front could overpower Missouri’s offensive line and impose the Kentucky-style template on Mizzou.
That did not happen.
Missouri found gaps in Florida’s alignments and roared through running lanes Gator defenders couldn’t fill. Mizzou running backs got past the line of scrimmage and then were able to explode into the second level without much resistance.
It was true that as soon as Missouri found a working formula with its running game, the fundamental pillar of Florida’s “don’t beat yourself” plan had been destroyed.
Florida had to stuff the run to create the successes it enjoyed against Mississippi State and LSU. It had to force mediocre passers into third-and-long situations. Missouri’s Drew Lock is one of the better quarterbacks Florida has faced this season. When UF could not get him into uncomfortable down-and-distance scenarios, the Gators were in big trouble. They were once again facing a competent offense that fundamentally knew what it was doing.
Florida can’t beat those teams… not with Feleipe Franks under center. The defense has to dominate. Anything less, and this team’s margins are slim. This was the epiphany created by Georgia and cemented by Missouri on Reality Saturday in the SEC.
The SEC East has not been very good this season. Within that storyline exists a more particular detail: SEC East quarterbacking has not been very good Lock of Missouri and Jake Fromm of Georgia are the two best signal-callers in the division. Jake Bentley has begun to play better in recent weeks for South Carolina, but overall, his 2018 campaign has rated as a disappointment. This year’s Florida team has been competitive in this environment, but if we are looking ahead into the future, the Gators have to know that if the caliber of quarterbacking becomes better in the division and the SEC as a whole, they have to be able to improve even MORE than the competition will.
Dan Mullen surely knows that if other SEC teams get better at the sport’s most important position, he has to have his own dynamic passer. He can’t coach his way to 13-6 wins in Starkville all the time. Florida will need to become a team that can win in many different ways. It is the mark of great programs: They can overwhelm on defense but can just as easily thrive on offense. They can win slugfests, yes, but also track meets. They can win with vertical attacks or horizontal finesse.
2018 Florida was rarely able to become that kind of team, able to win games in various ways. The template might have occasionally been stretched or expanded on the margins, but for the most part, it remained in place. The defense had to play well. The running game had to thrive. The pieces and position units surrounding Feleipe Franks had to help him out. UF did not have a quarterback who was capable of winning a high-scoring game against a good quarterback.
UF tempted the fates enough by falling behind 21-3 against Vanderbilt. Doing so a second time against Missouri? It was not going to end well for a team unsuited to mount large comebacks.
This is NOT an underachieving team. The weakness at the quarterback spot — Franks completed just 4 of his first 14 passes for 38 yards on Saturday — was too glaring to ignore. The ceiling for this team was not going to be especially high, given the lack of the top-flight passing game great teams generally need to have.
This game was not a welcome development — no one likes it when a season’s goals take a hit — but it does offer the clarity of knowledge. This game against Missouri shows just how badly Dan Mullen needs an excellent field general. It shows that while Florida is not the total mess it was in the first three weeks of the season, it also isn’t a team with a sufficient amount of game-changing high-end skill.
There is a certain degree of comfort in knowing your team is not good enough to warrant overwhelmingly high expectations within the course of a single season, but there is a lot of discomfort in knowing how high the bar needs to be raised for Florida to return to where it wants to be: playing in the SEC Championship Game.
Reality Saturday provides clarity, but not without a number of unsettling truths.
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